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"Arthurian female heroes, contrariwise, exist (at least for a time) as active helpers to male heroes, but always in the service of the patriarchal culture the hero upholds" (Fries, 3). One could argue that since this universe is thus so narrow for women, that embodying these counter-hero roles is actually the one way in which women can become empowered. Since autonomy and self-determination does not so strongly exist for women this fictional realm, and that they often function as a means of reflecting or mirroring the desires and goals of the greater male hero that the only way for these women to manifest desires and goals of their own is by attacking the already established values and structure.
While Fries strongly attributes this narrowing and general one-dimensionality of the female figure in Arthurian literature, to the sheer inability of male authors of the period to imagine anything else, and this is in fact an accurate take on the situation, it's not the only reason why women in the Arthurian universe have to take on the role of counter-hero so immediately. So much of the female dynamic as counter hero is connected to the male fear of female power, and that if females were to actually achieve this power, they would use it to the detriment of men (Saul, 1). Arthurian authors have not created a female character who is as a powerful as Merlin or as brave and noble as Lancelot and who uses all of their power for good. Thus, perhaps it's not simply that Arthurian male writers couldn't imagine a powerful woman with her own abilities for self-determination, they just couldn't imagine one who was powerful, autonomous and good. This sheer inability to imagine revolves around fear of women obtaining this power: Morgan le Fay is such a threat to the male writers of this period in that she's not just willing to create treason, but that she also has the powers of a sorceress. This gives her an untamed, supernatural quality and a renegade power that makes it difficult for the men of this realm to confront or anticipate. Morgan le Fay states regarding her brother King Arthur, "I shall put an enchantment upon him that he shall not awake in six hours, and then I will lead him away unto my castle, and when he is surely in my hold, I shall take the enchantment from him" (Malory, 179). These planned actions not only show an ability of a female figure to self-determine and act with complete autonomy, but to do so through magic, completely overpowering the male, an act which no doubt was a source of anxiety for Arthurian writers. More importantly, Morgan le Fay accomplishes everything she sets out to do, overpowering the great King Arthur with her enchantment.
Thus, Morgan le Fay is an archetype of the main way that a woman can enjoy unbridled power, authority and independence in the realm of Arthurian literature, through rebellious and seditious acts. It appears that only through breaking the codes of this very male universe can a woman achieve a palpable level of sovereignty. The perhaps underlying fear that informs the bulk of Arthurian writers' thoughts and fears about women in power is most heavy-handed when it comes to Morgan le Fay. As these writers paint in her in the colors of counter-hero, they do so in an entirely dichotomous manner, reducing her perhaps to an almost unoriginal archetype of evil: they took away her beauty. One could argue that this was indeed a calculated move as Morgan was not created in the Arthurian universe as an ugly hag: this was a transformation the authors gave her; in certain respects this was a way of damning her as she became more powerful. Arthurian authors precisely and strategically change Morgan's physical appearance along with the ability of her healing powers; Morgan becomes described as hot, lecherous, and brown-faced (Fries, 5). Since physical beauty is a coefficient of moral goodness in medieval literature, her ugliness emerges as spiritual as well as corporeal" (Fries, 5).
Thus, even in this fictional universe one could argue that by making Morgan hideous, the writers were essentially punishing her for becoming so powerful, even though ironically, they were the ones who empowered her in the reality of the stories. Physical beauty has been linked to moral goodness for centuries upon centuries since physical beauty for long was seen as a reflection of the divine (Federici et al., xii). Some scholars even go so far as to wager that in Medieval European scholastic literature, beauty and moral goodness weren't just immediately connected, there was no distinction made between the two (Stewart, 10). Making Morgan unattractive was also a vehicle for the men of this realm to be protected, since the Arthurian world did have such a strong connection between moral goodness and beauty, an ugly character was a way of warning everyone else in the reality of the story.
Another way in which Morgan is transformed throughout the Arthurian realm is via the construction of her voracious sexual appetite, something else which showcases the very real and very prevalent male fear of female power. it's also another way of the male writers to damn a powerful female in the reality of the fiction. The women of Arthurian fiction who are good, are beautiful gentle creatures who mirror the objectives of the more powerful male hero. In using the word gentle, this implies an exclusively ladylike relationship with sex, treating sex as a means to become a mother and as one's wifely duty. Morgan's sexual appetite: "…underscores the fundamental gynophobia that marks both the Malorean and the modern Arthurian tradition. In Malory's book, female sexuality -- active or passive -- is by its very nature structurally threatening" (Slocum, 27). The reader cannot forget how Malory has reminded one that Morgan is a creature of "false crafts" and "false lusts" (Malory, 119); thus, such words imply there's something about her appetite and objectives that cannot be trusted. This is strategic as Malory can conceal male anxiety regarding female prowess by essentially demonizing Morgan's character.
The actions and fate of Morgan le Fay showcase time and again how Arthurian writers create female figures who are cast in dichotomous shades of black and white, something which equals to a sincerely limited existence in the Arthurian realm. Possessing power, she becomes distrustful and hideous, as Morgan le Fay thus evolved. But in keeping with the values of the realm, the heroine lacks autonomy, unless she is willing to break the codes of the realm. The most striking example of this is Guinevere, a woman who is objectified repeated in Arthurian literature. "And then Sir Lamorak asked him why he loved Queen Guenever as he did: For I was not far behind you when ye made your complaint by the chapel. Did ye so? Said Sir Meliagaunce, then I will abide by it: I love Queen Guenever, what will ye it? I will prove and make good that she is the fairest lady and most of beauty in the world" (Malory, 372). This brief passage shows without a doubt where the Arthurian feminine values lie. Goodness is always equated with beauty; even more disturbingly now, the feminine beauty of Guinevere is attributed to why men love her so. Guinevere's objectification is complete; she is as beloved as a prized possession. "Arthurian heroines, of whom Guinevere is the most notable, are mostly passive figures whose beauty and favor operate to lure and/or guide the hero to his destiny: love-objects and/or wives (like Chretien deTroyes's Enide or Laudine), they have a potential for danger as well as patriarchal service" (Fries, 1998, p.67). While scholars almost unanimously agree that Guinevere is the ultimate and foremost Arthurian heroine and fits that archetype almost perfectly, there's still a certain degree of male anxiety that shapes her actions within this fictional realm and which represents a general mistrust of women and female power.
In Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of Kings of Britain one finds out that King Arthur, "heard that his nephew Modred, to whose protection Britain had been entruste, had treacherously usurped the crown, and that queen Ganhumara had repudiated her former vows and united with him in sinful love (Geoffrey, 248). These actions of Guinevere -- betrayal, incest, treachery -- are so out of character for a feminine heroine in this universe. At the same time, committing such sins is the only way for a woman in the Arthurian realm to exercise any sort of autonomy. Just as Morgan le Fay indulged in trickery, treason and subterfuge as an exercise in self-determination, so Guinevere takes a lover, committing adultery.
Guinevere is very much like the sun in the Arthurian universe, around which all the remaining planets or characters orbit. Guinevere is indeed a sun, though one must keep in mind that she is a sun…[continue]
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